BERKELEY'S NEWS • OCTOBER 02, 2022

SF Symphony sounds plucky grandeur of Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Ravel

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SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY | COURTESY

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JULY 27, 2022

The marble floors clicked and the velvet walls rippled with anticipation at the San Francisco Symphony on July 21 for a program beginning with Gabriella Smith’s composition “Tidalwave Kitchen,” continuing to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and ending with the finale to end all finales, Maurice Ravel’s deliciously maddening “Boléro.”

The lights dimmed, the tuning on stage and murmuring in the stands thinned to silence, and this silence thinned to a careening buzz of violins, like a soft and urgent horde of flies. As the brass thumped in, the whine revolved, trembled and pulsed between reedy flutes and resounding bass. 

“Tidalwave Kitchen” was inspired by Smith’s home in Northern California, and indeed it brought to mind the coast’s predictably unpredictable whipping wind, scorching sun, searing sea and clamoring gulls. It ended the only way it seemed it could — a sharp yet bleary percussive thwack, as though a match had lit the coast ablaze.

Rachmaninoff’s Italian slice-and-dice followed. Paganini’s commanding histrionics, sweet violin groans and heady viola sighs were set to a stately Slavic call-and-response between the strings and the pianist, Inon Barnatan. Barnatan maintained an utterly fluid jerkiness throughout the piece, his fingers stumbling masterfully from the low to the high ends of the keyboard like moths against a hot bulb.

The conductor, Ludovic Morlot, echoed Barnatan’s liveliness, often looking at him over the shoulder, urging more. However, Morlot’s movements proved testier and more clear-cut, with no pedals to sustain his trilling gestures. The “Rhapsody” is a thankful and extreme exception to the relative unpopularity of Rachmaninoff’s late works, and here the glittering piano, sparse wide bass and spasmodic staccato strings gave full flesh to the inverted skeleton of Paganini’s theme.

A standing ovation obliged Barnatan to bow four times, only to sink back into an impromptu, Charlie Brown-esque riff on an off-program Gershwin standard, “I Got Rhythm.” The jarring jazziness continued through the veering cars, quacking horns and buzzing street percussion of “An American in Paris,” a symphonic ode to a gloriously homesick Yank in the florid urban bed of interwar decadence.

At the time of its release, Oscar Thompson of the New York Evening Post ceded that, while Gershwin’s episodic epic may be hot in 1928, “to conceive of a symphony audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.” 

Suffice to say, the piece endures, drawing more than pleasure and demanding less than patience — it is both jolting and lulling, cartoonish and visceral, nebulous and blunt, blitheness and bravura, as only a city can be. This time, the standing ovation met with the orchestra’s own rises and bows.

When “Boléro” premiered at the Paris Opéra on Nov. 20, 1928, a woman screamed in the midst of its cheering reception, “Au fou, au fou!” (“The madman! The madman!”). When Ravel got word of the event, he quipped, “She understood.”

Morlot’s rendition deftly captured Ravel’s maddening and plucky grandeur, from 

the dissolute and muddy majesty of the trombone to the cutting sweep of violins. Gradually, every piece of the orchestra joined in a seamlessly dissonant crescendo, heightening one octave only to crest one higher, and cresting this only to end on — how could one possibly end such a piece? 

One simply runs out of heights to crest, and the C major, which had been thoroughly slashed, droned and pounded for the last 15 minutes, collapsed into a hair-raising E major as a sphincter contracts in a pang of shock, as a sandcastle plummets in a wave. 

The insistent, suddenly stopping and slowly swelling quality of the refrain depended entirely upon the snare drummer to whom Boléro” does not afford even a measure of respite. It is a testament to his virtuosity that he came forth from the rear and bowed once, twice, three times to standing applause.

Though the night ended with no screaming accusations of madness, the audience pushed its weight through the heavy ivory doors and streamed out onto Van Ness Avenue in the slight yet all-consuming fugue Ravel intended.

Contact Selen Ozturk at 

LAST UPDATED

JULY 27, 2022


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